May 2014


  • Raising our voices
    Dialogue with the profession has been sidelined by this government, says Brian Lightman, with damaging results. It needs to be restored, whichever party is in power, if the vision of a great education service that we all share is to be realised. More
  • The perfect addition
    As more schools struggle to fill headship vacancies, business managers are successfully stepping up to leadership. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Be true to your SEF
    As Ofsted announces a shake-up of the inspection framework, Tony Thornley looks at how approaches to school self-evaluation have evolved and explores what a genuinely useful SEF should contain. More
  • Excellence as standard
    We may have reached the zenith of understanding about what makes a great school, says Roy Blatchford. If so, the next step is to make it the norm across the system. More
  • A little bird told me...
    Wary of social media? Think Twitter’s a time-wasting distraction? Avid tweeter Peter Monfort offers a guide to its professional uses that could change your mind. More
  • The true values of education
    record number of school and college leaders gathered in March for the 2014 ASCL Annual Conference, to debate, network and learn about the latest developments in education policy. We were delighted that more than 1,200 of you could join us at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole for what truly More
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We may have reached the zenith of understanding about what makes a great school, says Roy Blatchford. If so, the next step is to make it the norm across the system.

Excellence as standard

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his seminal work The End of History and the Last Man (1992) argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies marked the endpoint of humanity’s social evolution. In essence, Fukuyama asserted that the final form of government had arrived.

Is there a similar sense in which we already know today what we need to know about creating great schools?

International educators would argue that the following key ingredients make up the professional cocktail: schools excel at what they do in a consistent manner; they have strong values and high expectations; their achievements do not happen by chance but through highly reflective, carefully planned, strategies; there is a high degree of internal consistency; and leadership is well distributed and ambitious in order to move the school forward.

What will emerge across school systems is, to borrow from the medical profession, ‘the standard operation’. As a patient entering an established hospital for an appendectomy, a hip replacement or a kidney transplant – operations of increasing complexity – wherever in the world we are, doctors swing into action with the standard operation. Barring complications and assuming competent physicians, the patient leaves hospital with a body refreshed.

What may ‘the standard operation’ in schools look like, wherever in the world you are? We may reasonably expect, in a wealthy and highly developed society, that what I’ll call ‘Excellence as standard’ would be the norm for a school. I shall try to describe it here.

A people business

The bearer of these presents is Michelangelo, the Sculptor. His nature is such that he has to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement but if he be treated well, and love be shown to him, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder.

Michelangelo’s testimonial to the Pope

Schools are a people business. The inner belief and commitment to realising excellence by those who lead schools is the starting point. At its beating heart the excellent school is a place where people care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.

The excellent school sets out its stall to employ positive and dedicated people in the same way that any five-star business does. The particular skills and knowledge required of a teacher are non-negotiable – so are attitudes, dispositions and high service standards.

The excellent school is a first choice for families and an employer of first choice for staff. Academic standards reflect the fact that, whatever their starting points, children and young people make very good progress through their school years, and achieve as well as they can in public examinations. Children feel good about themselves within the school; their talents and gifts – whatever they may be – are spotted and nourished. The wider community wants to be associated with the school’s successes.

The environment that children enter each day is attractive, light, clean, safe and welcoming; young children run into the playground at the start of the day with barely a glimpse back to their parent. Older children arrive in good time at the start of the school day and stay on at the end, perhaps to sit in the library or cafe area. Physical space – and care for that space – matters.

Throughout the school day, there is a sense of calm and purpose, because staff have clear expectations about behaviour and attitudes to learning. There is very little ‘white noise’ to distract staff and students going about their business. Day-to-day organisation is unfussy. No one complicates matters. The school resists passing educational fads and fashions, confident in its tried-and-tested practices for the community of learners it serves.

Time is well used. The curriculum and lessons motivate the children, as does the co-curricular programme of sport, drama, arts and music. Students produce work and create performances that are of real quality, whether in the sciences, the humanities or the arts. They ask deep questions of themselves, take risks in their learning and develop collaborative skills.

Importance of childhood

Students make a difference every day, whether in their own unique progress and/or to the work and well-being of others and the school community. Each child is valued and understood as an individual: academically, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and as a spiritual being. Staff recognise the profound importance of childhood, as captured in JM Barrie’s words from Peter Pan:
On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.

Those who lead the school are optimistic, approachable and in clear, quiet command. Their craftsmanship, if you like, is of great simplicity and strength. Their instincts and intuitions are always asking what they can do to make the school better. And if they are ‘trailblazing’ in the external educational world, they never forget that tweaking and revising everyday matters in the school corridors and hallways is vital.

Leaders ensure that staff are well looked after, pastorally and professionally, so that a trademark of the school is staff continuity. Staff know at all times that they are servants of the school. Those who leave do so for good reason and are warmly thanked and recognised by parents, children and governors for their significant contributions to the school community.

An excellent school is high performing in all aspects of its life and work. It has a distinctive influence on children’s and young people’s lives. Attention to detail matters. Staff will always go that extra mile to ensure that an upset child is cared for or a pupil is best prepared for an interview or examination. Staff believe that almost anything is possible: whatever the barrier a child may present, excellent schools find a way through. Decisions are made in the best interests of the child, not the staff.

Striving to be expert

Excellence as standard in schools is about an embedded culture of thinking and doing. Those leading and teaching in the school do care, risk, dream and expect more than others think is possible.

They do so every day that the school is open, and as much again in holiday periods. They have a passion to be the best they can be. They strive to be expert in as many ways as they can be, in nurturing young people’s talents and aspirations, not some or most of the time, but all of the time. The quest for excellence becomes their habit and their purposeful practice.

The teacher and social historian RH Tawney wrote: ‘What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.’ In the same way that the standard operation in hospital is a manifestation of the best medicine that can be offered to the patient, Excellence as Standard can become an equivalent Kitemark in our global schooling systems, today and for tomorrow. It is what parents and nations alike want for their children.

Wise school leaders know that expectations rise ineluctably – that is the human condition, that is the global imperative. Echoing F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, definitions and descriptions of excellence in schools will not remain static; they will forever be boats beating on against the currents, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’.

Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust (

This article is based on a chapter from The Restless School published in April 2014 by John Catt; see:

For more details and to order your copy of the book please see online at

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